Tim Palmer (percussion), Shean Bowers (organ)
The Choir of Bath Abbey/Huw Williams
rec. 15-17 January 2020, Bath Abbey, Somerset, UK
REGENT REGCD555 [65:07]
The singing is sweet and pure, the voices possess a charming, almost innocent quality, their words are crystal clear (although, on a personal level, I find the studied pronunciation of “to” as a tight “tu” irksome) and their overall sound refreshingly bright and unpretentious. The organ makes a fine, full-blooded sound, and the chosen programme and the carol arrangements excellently chosen with an eye to tradition and familiarity. Each and every performance is clean, direct and immaculately tailored, and the recording has a lovely feeling of atmosphere, even if the balance between the voices and the full organ sometimes stretches credibility a little. All-in-all this has all the makings of a popular recital of conventional Christmas carols, and will be lapped up by anyone who enjoys beautifully performed, traditional Christmas music.
We get some Rutter – a sparkling performance of the Sans Day Carol, made all the more sparkling by Shean Bowers’ blatant (but, to my way of thinking, amply justified) use of the Cymbelstern – as well as the classic Willcocks descants for O Come all ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Once in Royal David’s City. We have some much-loved old classics – Harold Darke’s timeless In the Bleak Mid-Winter in which the solo voices have an endearing fragility about them – as well as a few more recent ones – notably a delicious account of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium. And it is good to have two different settings of Away in a Manger, one using Kirkpatrick’s famous tune, the other the less-frequently heard, but possibly even more lovely one, arranged by Edgar Pettman from an old Normandy melody. New to me are the two settings by Roy Massey, Adam lay -bounden and Long the Night, but they should quickly turn into popular classics given the delicious way in which the Bath choir delivers them, and I do not previously recall hearing Mark Wilberg’s much organ-focused arrangement of Ding Dong Merrily on High – although given the brilliant playing from Bowers, it may be that I have just never heard it performed so well before.
All that is more than enough to justify this being the disc of choice for those wanting to hear traditional and well sung carols at home this year, but there are two items which make it stand out from the crowd even more proudly. Huw Williams has added a few percussion effects for his version of the ancient Gaudete! which not only gives the disc its title, but stands out as one of the more vigorous and stimulating bits of Christmas music. And the second is Malcolm Sargent’s wonderful setting of Mary had a Baby. On a personal level, it was wonderful to hear this in 2020, the year my father (aged 103) died; he often told me of his time with the Royal Choral Society under Sargent – whom he worshipped - and well recalled singing in the first performance of this carol as well as several others arranged so superbly by Sargent (what a shame Williams did not add Sargent’s Zither Carol to the mix, but perhaps he’ll put it on next year’s disc).
And I do hope there is another disc from them next year. Carol singing as delightful as this is not something we get to hear that often any more in an age when innovation and uniqueness seem to be the principal drivers for choirs wishing to make their mark on record at Christmas.
Piae cantiones, 16th century, arr Huw Williams: Gaudete
French medieval melody, arr David Willcocks: O come, O come Emmanuel!
Henry Walford Davies: The Lamb
Harold Darke: In the bleak mid-winter
Trad Spiritual, arr Malcolm Sargent: Mary had a baby
Trad Ukrainian, arr Roy Massey: Long the nigh
French 16th century, arr Mack Wilberg : Ding dong! merrily on high
Paul Edwards: No small wonder
Morten Lauridsen: O magnum mysterium
Henry John Gauntlett, arr Arthur Henry Mann/ David Willcocks: Once in royal David’s city
Roy Massey: Adam lay ybounden
Lowell Mason, arr John Rutter: Joy to the world
Normandy melody, arr Edgar Pettman: Away in a manger
Eric Whitacre: Lux aurumque
Philip Stopford: Lully, lulla, lullay
Trad English, arr Simon Preston: I saw three ships
Trad Cornish, arr John Rutter: The Sans Day Carol
Trad English, arr Philip Ledger: The Sussex Carol
John Francis Wade, arr David Willcocks: O come, all ye faithful
William James Kirkpatrick, arr Huw Williams : Away in a manger
Felix Mendelssohn, descant David Willcocks: Hark! the herald-angels sing